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Uttar Pradesh polls: Parties dwell on complex caste math as voter loyalties remain fluid

Like a game of chess, political parties in Uttar Pradesh are busy in fragmenting and defragmenting the diverse social constituencies at macro and micro level to form a winning ‘social coalition’ in the upcoming 2017 Assembly election. To accomplish that, new and a shared sense of politically relevant social cleavages are engineered to disturb the conventional wisdom of social identities.

Poll time. Reuters

Poll time. Reuters

In this backdrop, the possible four patterns of ‘partisan alignment and de-alignment’ need special consideration: Dalit-Muslim alignment by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP); Yadav-Muslim combination by the Samajwadi Party (SP); Brahmin-Muslim-Most backward castes consolidation by the Congress; higher castes-sub-castes of OBCs and Dalits formation by the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). Will the parties be able to carve out partisan loyalties of the voters or will the voters change their loyalties to shift the balance so quickly and dramatically at the polls? It is surprisingly difficult to provide clear answers to these questions. Given the varying social circumstances and political experiences, it is logically unpersuasive that there will be a sudden major shift in the partisan loyalty of the distinct social groups like Muslims, Dalits, OBCs particularly Yadavas, higher castes particularly Brahmins.

Dalit-Muslim alignment

For decades, Dalits and Muslims were the part of rainbow coalition maintained during Congress system which eventually collapsed with the rise of low caste politics and political parties in the state. Though the inner cleavages within these social identities remained static for long as could be seen, Muslims and Dalits got consolidated with SP and BSP respectively and overwhelmingly. It is only since mid-2000s, political parties started carefully picking the thread of the caste cleavages within these social groups by invoking the Pasmanda identity in Muslims and non-Jatava caste clusters in Dalits in very visible ways. The disproportionate shift of Pasmanda Muslims from SP to BSP owes much to the growing consciousness among them on their relative socio-economic deprivation and high casualties during communal violence comparing elite/Ashraf Muslims. It can be easily verified from the Sachar Committee report as well as the recent communal riots including Ghaziabad (2012), Faizabad (2012), Muzaffarnagar (2013) and Bijnor (2016).

To drift the non-Jatav sub-caste categories from BSP, BJP came out with a strategy of appropriating BR Ambedkar, bathing and dining with Dalits, distributing party portfolios and Assembly tickets, softening stand on reservation, embracing Buddhist monks, and, most importantly, employing Dalit youths particularly from Valmiki, Khatik, Nai, Mochi, Kumhar, etc. community during the communal riots to polarise their mind. But given the rise in atrocities against Dalits exposed in Una and other places and the powerful return of BSP to its classical strategy of Dalit victimhood, the dent in Dalit votes in the name of ‘Hindu solidarity’ appear a little difficult proposition. The non-Jatav will not shift massively and decisively in favour of BJP rather will consolidate further with BSP in view of the party’s high prospect of winnability in 2017 due to emergent bonding with Muslims.

Yadava-Muslim combination

The ruling Yadava-Muslim combination of SP is crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions. It owes much to not only the recent high voltage family drama but also the poor performance of SP on the front of providing physical security to Muslims during recurrent communal riots, maintaining law and order and bringing the much promised economic and financial dividend to the community. Tragically, Muslims felt an acute sense of betrayal when they noted the tacit support of SP to communal violence. But the SP’s strategic design of continuous communal riots to keep Muslims in the party padlock for fear of BSP will fail to deliver. The drift among lower caste Muslims are high as despite they being the recipient of extreme sufferings are taken for granted by the party.

Strangely, the cluster of peasant groups, Yadavas, who happen to be one of the most assertive caste formations and the biggest beneficiary of SP’s regime, started getting disillusioned due to intra-dynastic fight within the party. There is also a slight shift in their partisan loyalties in urban areas from SP to BJP which was already observed in 2014 Lok Sabha election. It has also been triggered by the BJP through its subtle use of Hindutva ideology while highlighting the threat of possible bonding of Dalits and Muslims in 2017 elections. It must be highlighted that Yadavas treats Dalits particularly Jatavas/Chamars as their great enemies and vice versa in Uttar Pradesh.

Brahmin-Muslim-most backward caste consolidation

Conspicuously, the much hyped Brahmin-Muslim-Most Backward Caste consolidation by the Congress will fail to evolve in a grand manner in 2017 except improving its vote share in certain pockets of Uttar Pradesh. It owes much to the lack of confident and enthusiastic cadres at booth level, poor party management and absence of effective leadership having mass appeal. The strategy to appeal Brahmin voters will pay for the party only in 2019 Lok Sabha election but not in 2017 Assembly election. The poor conversion of Brahmin votes for the Congress is because of the empirical calculation of Brahmin voters who would not like to vote for a party which does not have a prospect to form the government in the state. For them, voting for Congress is just like wasting their votes. Instead, they may choose to remain intact with BJP or prefer its new ally, BSP. Similarly, Muslims too have no reasons to go with Congress except in circumstances when voting for Congress becomes a necessity to defeat BJP candidates in certain constituencies. At the same time, the most backward castes have largely consolidated behind BSP and if there is any possible dent, it will be only in favour of BJP.

Higher castes-sub-castes of OBCs and Dalits formation

For BJP, the higher caste social formation is priceless as they are the core vote bank for the party. But to attain winning margin, BJP is on the strategy to fragment the sub-caste categories of OBCs particularly non-Yadavas like Kurmi, Lodh, Koeri, Gujar, Kahar, Gadaria, Teli, Barahi, Kachi, Kewat, Nai, etc. and Dalits particularly non-Chamars/Jatavas like Pasi, Dhobi, Kori, Nishads, Balmikis etc to their advantage. In the process, the party found itself in a bind whose votes to keep, which ones to lose due to inherent dualistic cleavages between higher castes and lower and lowest castes. Be that as it may, given the declining sway of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma and high probability of Dalit-Muslim alignment with the tactical support from Brahmins to BSP, even the bleak possibility of BJP forming the government appears little difficult. Be that as it may, the recent campaign agenda of BJP is to arouse nationalist and communal passions with extreme subtlety.
Whatever may be the outcome of the 2017 Assembly elections, it becomes absolutely conspicuous that political parties are guided more by the electoral compulsions than ideology or principles or fostered sense of syncretism.

The author is Associate Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He can be emailed at

Updated Date: Nov 01, 2016 16:43 PM

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